The Equity Alliance files lawsuit to expand absentee voting in Tennessee Amid COVID-19

A sign asking people to maintain a distance of at least six feet is seen at a polling place during the Wisconsin election on April 7, 2020. The Equity Alliance has filed a lawsuit to expand vote by mail eligibility. (photo courtesy of wisconsinwatch.org)

In the midst of a global pandemic, The Equity Alliance, in partnership with Campaign Legal Center (CLC) and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, filed a lawsuit Monday, May 4 on behalf of two qualified voters and organizations whose many members are not eligible for vote by mail under current law, but wish to avoid exposing themselves or elderly family members to coronavirus.

Other plaintiffs include five organizations facing restrictions preventing them from carrying out necessary voter engagement activities for their members and the community in 2020. Under Tennessee law, the organizations can be punished for giving voters unsolicited requests for an absentee ballot with up to 11 months and 29 days in prison, a fine of up to $2,500, or both.

Typically, Tennesseans have cast their ballots largely in person. Recently, the rapid shift towards voting by mail has revealed how unprepared Tennessee is to ensure all absentee ballots are counted in the upcoming elections. The state gives election officials discretion to reject absentee ballots when elections officials decide, in their judgment, that the voter’s signature on their ballot doesn’t match the voter’s signature on file with the voter registration.

“This ‘matching’ process is unreliable and prone to mistakes, and because the state does not give voters any opportunity to fix apparent problems with their ballot, leads to disenfranchisement,” said Charlane Oliver, Equity Alliance Co-Founder and Co-Executive Director.

“Tennessee voters should not be forced to choose between their own personal safety and participating in our democratic process. Our state needs to adapt to the current environment brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic.

“Our organization wants to be able to proactively assist voters with voting by absentee ballot without the threat of criminal prosecution. We are in unprecedented circumstances that call for state officials to implement safer and secure approaches to ensure democracy is preserved in the Volunteer State.”

According to The Equity Alliance, “The coronavirus pandemic is wreaking havoc on our democracy. Just look at what happened in Wisconsin, where voters were packed like sardines at polling locations and forced to put their health in jeopardy to cast their vote. We can’t let Tennessee be the next disastrous election in the headlines, and we can’t let COVID-19 infect our elections. With no end in sight to the pandemic, we need to expand measures for everyone to vote safely and securely during the August 6th and November 3rd elections. And the safest way to do that is with mail-in absentee ballots.

“As the United States finds itself in the grips of the growing COVID-19 pandemic, the largest and most deadly pandemic in almost 100 years, it has become increasingly clear that expanding access to vote by mail may be the only way to ensure the safety of our citizens and the continued functioning of our democracy in a moment of immeasurable crisis.

“However, most state systems that enable Americans to receive and cast mail ballots are not adequately positioned to scale in advance of the November elections, and Tennessee is no exception. During the 2018 Midterm Elections, less than 2 percent of Tennesseans who voted in the election did so by mail; this means less than 43,500 of more than 2.2 million votes cast. If Tennessee is to be ready for the presidential election, then the time is now.

“It is absolutely critical that the expansion of mail ballots comes with critical protections that protect historically disenfranchised communities and those communities most likely to be disenfranchised by the current pandemic. Without informed policymaking, marginalized communities will be shut out of the system; lawsuits will be filed; our election results contested; voters will miss absentee ballot deadlines and opportunities; and the health and vitality of our democracy will be further eroded.

“The imperative in this moment is for Tennessee to swiftly expand vote by mail eligibility and capacity while rapidly adopting the necessary safeguards to maximize free, fair, and equal access and ensuring the integrity of our election system.”

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